As Brynjolf and Ginna approached Black-Briar Manor, Maven was shoving her son Hemming out the door, telling him to find something important to do with himself before she had him killed, or worse, locked up with his brother in the Riften prison. Ginna stood in front of Brynjolf, watching her shoo her eldest out the door as if he were a child of five, rather than a grown man. The worst part was that despite his haughtiness, Hemming was the least mature of Maven’s three children. He was self-righteous and arrogant, and he liked to pretend he was a man, but everyone knew he would never be even half the man his mother was.
Hemming sneered at them before sliding through the door, muttering something to himself that Ginna was surprised didn’t evoke a harsher response from Maven.
The woman simply stood in the doorway for a moment watching him go before calling out, “And tell your sister if you see her to stay out as well. I’ve got important business to conduct today and your distractions will not be tolerated.” She closed and locked the door, an exasperated sigh huffing through her lips before she spun around to face them. “We shouldn’t be bothered, the operative word being should. Ingun has a nasty habit of coming home at the most inopportune times, and I trust she’ll attempt to come bumbling through the door the minute we sit down to bother me with some useless nonsense about her precious potions. I never should have given them keys when they were grown. It was all so much easier when I could shove them out to play as children and lock the door until I saw fit to let them back in at the end of the day.”
Ginna respected Maven, and had done so since the very first moment they met face to face, but she did not kid herself into thinking she was kind. The woman was focused in the cruelest sense of the word, and her bitterness as a mother shone through in both of her sons. The fact that she’d allowed her youngest son, Sibbi, to remain behind bars just to prove a point to him spoke volumes of how far she was willing to go to remind them of where they came from. They were her puppets, and she was a daunting mistress that tugged their strings in whatever direction she saw fit.
Ginna couldn’t imagine ever being so cruel to her own children. Perhaps that was why Maven was the matriarch of Riften—a role Ginna hoped to never take on.
“Well, we’re here, Maven,” Brynjolf crossed his arms. “What’s so important that you had to come all the way down the Ragged Flagon to find us?”
“I came because I was concerned about Ginna.” She turned her dark blue eyes in the other woman’s direction, her stare lingering for a moment before she nodded toward the dining room. “Come in and have a seat, I’ll explain everything.”
“I hope you’ve got something to eat in there,” Ginna said, following casually and ignoring the surprised look Brynjolf cast in her direction. “Those boiled cream treats you had last time I was here were so good.”
“Of course,” Maven nodded, taking her seat at the head of the table. “Help yourself, and I’ve put on hot water for tea if you’d like a cup.”
“I would, please.”
“So that’s it then? We’re having a tea party?” Brynjolf tugged a chair across the floorboards and sat down, surveying the spread of food laid out on the table before reaching out to swipe a sweet roll. “If I’d known, I might have dressed for the occasion.”
“Must you always be so sarcastic?” Maven seethed. “The matters I’ve brought you to discuss are of the utmost urgency. ”
“Then perhaps we should get to the point,” he suggested.
Ginna found herself glancing toward him with the same surprise he’d cast in her direction moments ago. She’d never heard him so flippant with Maven, but oddly enough the woman seemed too frazzled to acknowledge his retort.
Frazzled. Maven Black-Briar. No two words have ever seemed odder in the same sentence. Since she’d met Maven, she’d been the model of self-control. Now she gripped the teapot with trembling hands, steaming water sloshing out over the side of the cup when she poured and splashing onto the table. Her lips were so tightly pursed together they were as white as the rest of her skin, and when she finally unclenched them to speak it took several seconds for the color to begin returning.
“Two nights ago one of my men stopped by the meadery in Whiterun to collect my take from Mallus and make certain things were running smoothly. Mallus usually runs a very tight ship, believe it or not, so I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary, but…” Her voice trailed into a daunting silence.
Ginna felt a wave of nausea churn in her stomach, followed by a conflict of fevered chills that made her shudder inside her clothing. Mallus… had he turned on her? Despite his trembling promises and admission that he still cared for her, she hadn’t trusted him. Sabre cats didn’t change the order of their stripes and she knew if Brutus had happened by the meadery after they left, little more than a hefty coinpurse could have been used to persuade him to turn on her.
Maven drew an almost quivering breath and then she said, “Mallus Maccius is dead.”
Those words caught her off guard. She’d expected to hear he’d disappeared, taken all the money and valuables from the strongbox and run, as Mallus was prone to do, but dead? She didn’t know how she felt about that, wasn’t sure if she should feel anything at all, but she did. And while Maven kept talking, the words moved through her like wind, barely clinging to her awareness even though she was trying desperately to process them. She heard something about a bloody mess, the site of her meadery now a criminal massacre the authorities would do everything in their power to shut down for investigation.
“… a strange symbol carved into his chest,” Maven said, snapping Ginna back to the moment long enough for her to raise her head. She could feel Brynjolf staring at her, those vibrant green eyes of his squinting as he tried to gauge her reaction to the news. “I had him draw the symbol as best he could, and this is what he came up with.” She slid a roll of parchment across the table, but Ginna couldn’t reach for it. She felt too weak, too strange, as if her head were buzzing like a hive of bees, that tingling numbness trickling through her blood like cold honey melting in the sun.
Brynjolf reached for the parchment when Ginna didn’t, unrolling it to have a look. He was silent for a moment and then he clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Oblivion.” Turning his gaze back to Ginna, he said, “Brutus.”
“It was my understanding that the two of you had history, Ginna. That while he was never considered a member of the family, he was embroiled in the affairs of the Cyrodiil Guild on account of his relationship to you.”
She couldn’t speak. Her tongue felt thick and dry in her mouth, and as she processed the timeline she realized Brutus must have been nearby while she and Rune had been at Honningbrew. Maybe he’d already been in the building, waiting, watching, studying her from the shadows. Had they really been that close to their own death?
It was a startling notion and coupled with the grizzly portrait Maven had painted of Mallus’s death, the nausea she’d been experiencing overpowered her. She jumped up from the table and darted out of the room, losing everything in her belly in the wash basin by the front door. Mallus was a snake; he had always been a snake, but a part of her once cared for him and to think he’d died because of her… It was more than she could stomach.
She wretched until her sides hurt, lowering her hand on the corner of the table to steady herself as Brynjolf stepped in from behind. One hand rested on her shoulder, the other on her waist and she wanted nothing more than to fall back into him, to let him comfort her, but the pride of him seeing her react that way reared its head and she nudged him back a little.
They’d never spoken in great detail about her relationship with Mallus, but a part of her once believed she’d loved the man. She didn’t want him to see how much it hurt her that he was dead, that her brother had killed him to send a message to her.
“You’re not fine.” Maven hovered in from the right, holding a cup toward her. “Here, drink this. It’s mint and lavender. It will help settle your stomach.”
It took several minutes before she calmed enough to allow them to help her back to her chair. Brynjolf sat beside her, stroking the hair from her face while Maven stared at her across the table.
“Did you speak with Mallus while you were in Whiterun?”
Ginna nodded meekly and lowered her eyes to the table. Her head was thumping between dizziness and a throbbing ache, and when she lifted a hand through her hair to move the strands off her forehead, her skin felt almost clammy. “Rune and I went to see him two nights ago. He offered to fence for me and I had a few things I wanted to sell, but I mostly thought he’d ratted me out to Brutus when I did the Honningbrew job for you a couple of months back because I was attacked by a Dark Brotherhood agent on the road. I thought for sure he’d turned on me.”
“Had he?” Brynjolf prompted.
“He said not.”
“Mallus is… was many things,” Maven began almost softly. “Honest wasn’t among them, but he proved himself loyal to me. I knew the two of you were involved before I even sent you to Whiterun the first time, and I told him to leave whatever issues you had in Cyrodiil where you left them. He assured me that he had no ill will toward you.”
“Considering what Brutus did to him, perhaps he was telling the truth.” She hesitated adding the words for once in his life, a part of her uncomfortable with the idea of being cruel to a dead man.
“I need to know everything about your brother, Ginna,” Maven said. “And I mean everything. No one leaves this house until we are all on the same page and well on our way to a solution to this… whatever this is.”
“A long time ago Severus told me he found Brutus in Bravil. He’d gone into the slums to search for an independent who’d been slinking in on the Guild’s jobs and he found her with a bit of effort. Unfortunately, she was already dead, had been dead for days by the smell of her and her two year old son was left in rags, crawling around in the filth like a skeever and screaming his throat raw.”
She closed her eyes and she could almost hear Severus’s voice, melodic and rich, every inflection carried out aristocratically. How she loved to listen to him talk, to try and imitate his poise and grace as a child, even though she knew she would never hold the same power his voice carried.
“He took him back to House Dareloth, fed him and cleaned him up. The next morning he filed clerical paperwork with the authorities to legally adopt him. For eight years they lived together, father and son, master and student and according to my brother all was right with the world. And then Severus took me in.”
Over the next two hours Ginna told Maven and Brynjolf everything she could remember, every detail that might hold some importance, even the little grudges that had always seemed so small. Two pots of tea, three bottles of mead and a plate of seared slaughterfish later, Maven leaned back in the chair with a sigh and said, “I don’t know what to do with all of that, or how any of it will help us get to the bottom of his plot. What about magic? Did Severus ever put him through any extensive magical training?”
“Illusion,” she shrugged, “but no more than I ever got. He always was good with manipulating the people around him though. A few words and he could calm or charm his way into whatever situation he wanted.”
“Illusion would certainly come in handy in your line of work, but I’d be more concerned if he’d been skilled in Conjuration.”
“Not when we were growing up, but it’s hard to say what sort of things he studied in his own time. Like I said, he had a strange fondness for books about the Daedra. Look, I know it’s dangerous, but I think I should head up to Dawnstar, check into the museum of the Mythic Dawn and see if I can get information from the man who opened it. Assuming he’s even still alive.”
“That museum was locked up tighter than a Thalmor outpost when we were there, Gin,” Brynjolf reminded her.
“Then we use the Skeleton Key to get inside if we have to.”
“Well, you aren’t going up there alone, not after this.”
“I’ll take Rune with—”
He cut her off before she could even finish that sentence. “I know you and the lad make a good team, but this is going to require more than just Rune watching your back. You’ll need a crew. Me, Rune, Vipir, we’ll all go.”
“Right, and just leave the Guild wide open for attack? And what do we do with Aventus while both of us are off doing whatever it is we’re doing here? We can’t take him with us, it’s too dangerous and leaving him in the Cistern is not an option if we’re both gone. If Brutus knows about him, he’s in danger.”
“Neither of you are going,” Maven interrupted. “You’re too close to the situation, Ginna, and if you did run into trouble up there…” Shaking her head she leaned her chin on her hand almost casually and said, “Well that wouldn’t do me any good at all. I need you both alive for the sake and prosperity of the Guild.” Of course, it wouldn’t be because she actually cared about her wellbeing. Maven was always thinking with her coinpurse, and anything that might put an unnecessary dent in that purse was a bad idea as far as she was concerned.
“So what do you suggest? Someone has to go up there.”
“I have a few resources to spare. I’ll have two of my men leave for Dawnstar tonight to do some digging. In the meantime, I hate to say this, but you look like something that just crawled out of the Ratway. I want you to go home and get some rest, and don’t you leave on any jobs without clearing it with me first.”
“Maven, I know you want to help, but this is my task.”
“Uh-uh,” she held a finger up. “When the time comes for you to perform whatever task you need to please the powers that be, then I’m not going to stand in your way. In the meantime, let someone else do the legwork. Now, go home and rest. That’s a direct order.”
Brynjolf refused to let her walk home by herself, and once they were in the house he double-checked every shadow in the place to make sure no one had broken in while they were at Maven’s. Before he left to go get Aventus from the Cistern, he told her three times to lock up behind him and not let anyone in.
“Until further notice, you don’t even go out on the balcony without me.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” she sighed, dropping onto the edge of the bed and lifting her aching leg to unbuckle her boot.
“I’m being practical, love.” He took her face between his palms and lifted it to look at him. “Bit by bit, he’s destroying everything you’ve ever cared about and he won’t stop until he gets to you. I’m not going to let that happen.”
That thought terrified her more than she would ever say out loud, not because Brutus was coming after her, not because she didn’t think she couldn’t handle him if it really came down to a fair fight (which it probably wouldn’t,) but there were still a lot of people she cared about standing between them. Reaching up she gripped his wrist and just held him close as she leaned in and rested her forehead against his stomach. He curled his fingers into her hair, stroking gently down the back of her neck.
“Maybe I should go with you to the Cistern,” she muttered into his armor. “It isn’t safe for any of us to walk the streets alone.”
“Or maybe we should move into the Cistern. At least down there we know we’ll be safe. That place is an impenetrable fortress. Anyone who actually gets past the maze of the Ratway would never make it through Dirge.”
“Gods,” she sighed. “I can’t, Bryn. I can’t be down there for more than a few hours at a time.”
“Now is not the time to be stubborn, lass. I know it’s not the most comfortable place in the world as far as you’re concerned…”
“If anything happens here in Riften, I’ll reconsider, but for now I’m going to stay right where I am. I want to sleep in my home, in my bed.”
“Fine, but I’m talking to a few of the guards on our payroll. I want them pacing the street in front of our door, and I want someone guarding the back entrance as well.” He bent to kiss the top of her head and then backed away to walk toward the door. “Lock up after I leave,” he said again, and she pushed herself up from the bed to make sure she carried out his request. If she hadn’t, he probably would have stood on the other side of the door listening for the tumblers to click into place.
After locking the door, she ambled back into the kitchen. She was exhausted and even though Maven’s tea had settled her stomach enough that she could nibble on a few pastries, it hadn’t been anything substantial. She started toward the door to head over to see what meat Marise had in her stall, but she stopped short of reaching for the knob to debate with herself. It was just up the street. She’d be there and back before Brynjolf even realized she’d gone, but the very thought was tinged with darkness and foreboding.
What if Brutus followed her and Rune from Whiterun? What if he was out there in the alleyway watching, waiting for her to come out alone? A momentary twinge of challenge rose in her, a desire to just face him and get it over with. She wasn’t afraid of Brutus Arenicci, but as she scaled back over all the hideous things he’d done since killing their father, she realized that wasn’t true. She was afraid. Afraid for her Guild, her husband, the little boy they were going to raise together. Her family had to be her first priority, always.
The inkling passed just as quickly as it arrived. If it were just her, she’d do it, but she had more than just herself to think about.
Drawing her hand back, she walked over to the table to sit down and for a long time she just stared into the hearth. Volumes of thought overwhelmed her, and within in a matter of seconds the anxiety of her brother’s darkness rose to claim her. Gods, life had been so simple once. She knew exactly who she was, where she belonged in the world and what her next move would be in every situation, but now she couldn’t imagine how anything was going to play out.
She wanted to run away, to gather everything in the world that meant anything to her and just run until she couldn’t run anymore, but Maven would never let them out of her sight, and besides, running was what cowards did–cowards like Mallus, who always got what was coming to them in the end. Ginna wasn’t a coward, but she had no idea how she was going to face the monster looming on her path. She felt sick again, and without even rising from the chair, she leaned over to grab the cleaning bucket from the floor, retching everything she’d eaten at Maven’s into the bottom.